Sunday, October 4, 2009

World Communion Sunday

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
And when I come I will give further directions.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It all started with some motzah and a glass of wine, at a dinner of bitter herbs and sacrificed lamb.

The room was stuffy now with the smoke of lamps and soft, worried conversations murmured around the table.

Jesus reached for a piece of the motzah – this shocked some of the disciples, who knew the blessing of the wine was supposed to come first in the seder meal – and blessed it: “Baruch attah Adonai, eloheynu melech ha-olam, ha-motzi lechen min ha-aretz:

“Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the ground.”

Breaking the motzah, he gave it to his disciples, and his words shocked, frightened, confused and revolted them: “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Then he reached for the cup of wine, and blessed it: “Baruch attah Adonai, eloheynu melech ha-olam, boray p'ri ha-gafen:

“Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.”

He gave the cup to his disciples, and after they had drunk from it, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many…”

None of his disciples understood yet, but not very many hours would pass until the meaning became all too clear. Little could they know in those dark hours following the crucifixion that the ritual of sharing the bread and the cup would become an act of celebration, a joyous event in the life of the church.

And little could they know that a simple piece of bread and a cup of wine would be the focal point of so much separation between groups of Christians. We have never been able to agree on what, exactly, this act of sharing bread and cup means.

Painting in broad strokes, there are four basic ways that different groups of Christians view this act of sharing which is variously called the Lord’s Supper, Communion, the Eucharist and the Agape meal.

As most theological positions go, they run the gamut, and most center around the interpretation of one phrase: “the Real Presence,” that is, if and how Jesus Christ is present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper.

On one end of the spectrum are the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as some Episcopalians and Anglicans. The belief is that, from the time Jesus first uttered the words of the Institution until today, when the Eucharistic elements, that is, the bread and the cup, are consecrated, they become, quite literally, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is known as the doctrine of transubstantiation. The outward appearance of the bread and the wine are not altered – it still looks and feels and tastes like bread and wine – but what is called the “inner reality” is changed. The person participating in the Eucharist quite literally ingests the real, physical body and blood of Jesus, and more than that, Christ as a whole is present in the elements – body and blood, soul and divinity. Thus the act of taking the elements is a means by which salvation is imparted to the participant. Thus to be barred from communion – excommunicated – is to be barred from salvation, doomed to everlasting punishment.

The idea of transubstantiation may go back as far as the second century, though it wasn’t until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that the word itself came into common use.

During the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, at least three other theological interpretations of the Lord’s Supper came into use. As you might imagine, each of these doctrines was controversial at the time, not only between Protestants and Catholics, but among the Protestant reformers themselves.

Martin Luther introduced a different interpretation of how the elements of the Eucharist are affected by consecration. In the doctrine of consubstantiation, the physical reality of the elements is unchanged – they are still bread and wine – but the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ are "truly and substantially present in, with and under the forms" of consecrated bread and wine. Those who participate eat and drink both the elements and the true Body and Blood of Christ Himself. This is the theology of the Lutheran Church, of course, as well as the Moravian church and some Episcopal and Anglican churches.

It has to be said, by the way, that neither the doctrine of transubstantiation nor the doctrine of consubstantiation attempt to explain how the elements are physically changed or inhabited, only that these things occur in consecration.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Baptist Church, as well as most related evangelical denominations, who practice Memorialism. Huldrych Zwingli, a contemporary of Martin Luther who led the Reformation in Switzerland, developed this theology of the Lord’s Supper. His view was that the bread and wine are not changed at all when consecrated, that the elements only signify the body and blood of Christ, and are not changed in any way. Zwingli’s argument appears to be that Christ is physically present in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and thus could not be physically present in the Eucharist in either physically altering the inner reality – transubstantiation – nor physically present in, with, and under the forms of otherwise unchanged elements – consubstantiation. Congregations that practice Memorialism, in general, do not hold Communion as sacramental; rather, it is considered to be an act of remembrance of Christ's atonement, and a time of renewal of personal commitment.

The Reformer that Presbyterians talk the most about is, of course, John Calvin. This brings us to how Presbyterians and members of the Reformed tradition view the Lord’s Supper.

I wonder if you’ve noticed that, unlike worship services in other denominations, most Presbyterian worship services include a Call to Worship, but no Invocation? That’s because we believe that whenever Christians are gathered together, Christ is present with that group through the Holy Spirit. It is thus unnecessary to invoke God, or ask that God be present with us. God is here with us this morning, and every time we gather.

When we Presbyterians look at the Lord’s Table, we see what theologians call a Pneumatic Presence. I love the term because I think automatically about drills and tires, but the term comes from the Greek word for “spirit,” “pneumos.” The understanding is that the elements of communion do not change, but that Christ is present in a spiritual sense – present though the Holy Spirit – providing nourishment to those who believe, strengthening us in our faith journey.

Notice also that we Presbyterians always celebrate the sacrament in the context of a congregation or gathering of believers. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 17, the Apostle Paul says, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” Communion only makes sense in the context of community.

In some sense we share this loaf with every believer in every place and time who has ever broken off a piece of motzah, or torn off a bite of bread, or had a wafer laid on their tongue, or selected a square cracker from a passed plate… or who ever will. More immediately we Presbyterians believe that we share this loaf and this cup in common with loaves and cups and wafers and chalices all across the world, not just on World Communion Sunday, but every time the table is set for this most wonderful and mysterious of meals.

And look! The table is set! The meal awaits us. Thanks be to God!

(Move directly into the Invitation and Institution)

1 comment:

  1. John, I like how you broke down the four views of the Lord's Supper and how you made your tradition's view a bit clearer for me. I think the Calvinist view is pretty close to what Jesus was talking about...The Memorialist view is a bit too cold for me but yet you still stay this side of the trans & consubstantion crowds. Well done!